'Nothing better': Heliski guide Russell Carr up in the mountains preparing to take clients heliskiing

Probably no one in New Zealand, or even the world, has heliski-guided more vertical metres than Russell Carr. The Queenstowner talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about the buzz of heliskiing, what’s changed over 40 years and how he fits his life around it

IN 1979, Russell Carr had only newly settled into Queenstown when he was advised to see Alpine Helicopters’ Don Spary about becoming a heliski guide.

‘‘I said, ‘what’s that?’

‘‘I went and saw Don and he said, ‘I want someone that can take people out on the mountains and not be scared about avalanches’.

‘‘I said, ‘well, anyone that’s not scared of avalanches is a fool, but, yeah, I’m confident I can take them out’.’’

Carr subsequently became one of NZ’s pioneer heliski guides and, 41 seasons later, aged 73, still is, though two cataract operations delayed his start this season.

Raised in Canterbury, he and his wife Clare, whom he married in Queenstown in 1971, had been ski patrollers on Mt Hutt between shifts as mental health nurses.

Russell had also been on the avalanche committee of the Mountain Safety Council — hence his cautionary words to Spary.

After joining Spary’s company, he pioneered many Queenstown heliskiing routes, including the Remarkables, before the skifield was established there, Eyre Mountains, South Harris Mountains and even Cecil and Walter Peaks.

‘‘We used to do a lot of work with fixed wing aerial reconnaissance first, looking at avalanche paths and all that sort of stuff.’’

His avalanche committee brought out two Canadian experts to help standardise NZ’s avalanche response system.

To this day, he says competing companies share information on avalanche activity.

‘‘I’ve never had a client involved in an avalanche — I have attended other guides’ clients who have been caught — and I’ve only been in about eight myself.

‘‘When you consider, over thousands of days of heliskiing and millions of vertical metres,
eight is not too bad.’’

He was also instrumental in setting up, with other companies, NZ Helicopter Operators
Group, or HOG, which set industry standards.

Russell, who’s mostly heliskied for Harris Mountains Heliski, says ‘‘it hasn’t been my job, it’s
been my life’’.

Every other job he’s undertaken has been on the basis he takes the winter off.

Those jobs include fishing guide, film location scout, safety auditor, an art business with local artist Ivan Clarke, deer farming and, latterly, limo driving.

For about 35 years he was also a search and rescue volunteer and, for a long time, an administrator, receiving the Queen’s Service Medal for his efforts in 2002.

For 28 years he also owned lake launch, the 1924-built Muratai, using it as a family boat.

But nothing matches the thrill he gets from heliskiing.

‘‘Just the visual aspect of it I like, landing on the ridge, getting out of a helicopter and the
helicopter flies away, and then that moment of just quietness, it’s just you and four clients and you say, ‘hey, guys, this is what you’re going to do’.

‘‘And at the bottom of the first run they’re just absolutely elated, and want to do more.

‘‘The thing I like is showing people the mountain environment in a safe manner.

‘‘Technology has changed so much.

‘‘The fact we use computers [for weather forecasting], we’ve got avalanche transceivers, the guides have got airbags, we had none of those back in the early ‘80s, that was all hit and miss.’’

Russell’s got no doubt he’s NZ’s, if not the world’s, oldest guide.

‘‘To be fair, ‘Heli 1’ being a beginner heliskier and ‘Heli 4’ being an expert, I let the young
fellows now take the Heli 4s — I can just have a cruisy day with the Heli 1s, 2s, and 3s.

‘‘I joke with people, the hardest part of my day is climbing in and out of the helicopter.’’